Behind the curtain

Photo of brick buildings in downtown Portland -- across the top of one of the buildings in tall block letters reads, "Long live the wildcards, misfits & dabblers"

The past month or so, I’ve been having tons of conversations with people formally and informally, short and long, structured and meandering. I talked with former clients, mentors, colleagues in various forms, faculty and classmates in my coaching training cohort, people I had just met at the conference I was attending, and longtime friends.

In some cases, I particularly sought advice from someone—whether I’d specifically reached out hoping for advice or simply asked in response to a topic of conversation. And, tactical questions aside (like, where should I eat in your city), the answer was almost always the same.

“There is no advice.”

That was what my extremely real, dear old junior high school friend said. But that’s basically what everyone else said, too. And these are brilliant people. People I respect and have learned from. People whom I saw as further ahead on the curve. Who perhaps, at most, shared what they did in a similar situation, and then that they really weren’t sure but it had seemed to work. And that they were still figuring it out.

One person I had intended to ask for advice actually opened the conversation by wondering out loud about something with me, and the conversation took a lovely turn I hadn’t expected.

In other cases, I observed someone do something in a particularly skillful manner (ways I wanted to be able to emulate)—only to hear them afterwards share that they had been very uncertain of themselves the entire time. I have taken mental notes of what someone did or how they handled a situation to squirrel away for future reference, and then heard them question how they could have done it better.

To be fair, I’ve also had my share of being on the other side. Getting complimented or having people think that I’ve got it all figured out feels…scary. Like they’re going to find out* that I’m just making it up as I go along. (Even if I have a pretty decent track record of figuring things out.) And yet.

The most valuable conversations were those where we let each other behind the curtain and reveal the rest of what’s really happening.** Where we let go of anyone having the answers—of there being right answers, of answers being some sort of magic passcode that unlocked the door to some secret garden. Where we could sit in those questions together. Be curious. Be real with each other. I am forever grateful to all the people who let and continue to let me behind the curtain. And I am grateful to have worked with a coach who taught me to ask whether there a right answer actually exists when I am exasperating myself in pursuit of one. (Not that this isn’t a lesson I continue to work on!)

No matter how much someone seems to have it all figured out – we’re all just figuring it out as we go along. And in my experience, the people who frequently wonder about how they could have done something better – those have been the people I’ve learned the most from, whom I’ve witnessed be the best at what they do. They are the people doing tremendous things, because they keep asking themselves that question. Because they care to question if they are doing the right thing, and if they are doing it in a way that they can feel good about. But they don’t let it stop them from doing the thing.

Are there people who are, perhaps, objectively better at a particular skill or more knowledgeable in a certain area? Sure. There are certainly service designers who are more skilled at designing digital services or knowledgeable about designing experiences. But I’ve actually implemented programs and services, and specifically within a nonprofit and community-focused context. There are more skilled instructional designers and teachers than me, but I’ve actually had to answer customer support questions and besides, people always come away learning something they can apply—and that’s my goal. Doesn’t mean I can’t get better, or that I won’t.

So I’m going to change tack.

Instead of asking for advice, I’m going to ask people how they would think about a situation. What are the questions they ask? What are the factors they consider? When do they take a particular type of action? Who are the people they learn from? To ask them what goes on behind the curtain in their brains as they work on a problem.

In fact, it’s the kind of thing I’ve seen time and again in coaching others – people know more than they realize. And that includes you and me. The trick is in clearing the other muck out of the way first so we can see it.

What do you think about this approach? Have you had similar experiences? Take a different approach entirely? I’m curious to learn more.

*While, yes, this feeling is the feeling of being an impostor, I no longer believe that impostor syndrome truly exists. Rather, after learning more (I suggest reading “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey), and after reflecting on multiple previous experiences where I was told that I didn’t know what I was talking about—sometimes publicly—by people who had significantly more power in the relationship, and the ways in which I’ve seen others knocked down for similar reasons, I’ve come to see this feeling as a preemptive protective measure against the ways in which insecure people attempt to maintain superiority. At least, I know that in my head—but I still feel it!

**(Spoiler alert!) The phrase “behind the curtain” comes from The Wizard of Oz, in which there is a scene where they find the big, scary wizard, and it turns out to be just a regular human guy behind a curtain operating a machine for special effects. While in the case of the movie (I don’t recall if that scene is in the original novel), the curtain is used for deception, I’m not talking about people putting up facades intentionally—although that happens, too, of course, and is simply human. But what I’m referring to here in terms of “what’s really happening” is that it’s easy for any of us to see things on social media or hear fragments of what’s going on with someone in a short, passing chat and come up with an image in our heads that is at best incomplete and, at worst, very skewed or completely misreading a situation. It’s natural to fill in any blanks and to want to connect the dots we can see—but important to remember that there’s always a lot that we can’t see and don’t have access to.

Highlights and takeaways from #24NTC

Notebook with colorful stickers (doughnut, rose, logo, 24NTC powered by NTEN) and a bookmark about "Planning welcoming and inclusive projects" with 10 strategies: 1. Determine your
inclusivity metrics, set
goals, and track success
to start. 2. Made for you 3. Create safer
spaces 4. Virtual
accessibility is
the new normal 5. Access,
access, access. 6. Plan for
multiple ways
for people to
process and
participate. 7. People are
more than data. 8. Name the
power dynamics
and account for
impact. 9. Stay flexible
and pivot. 10. Name the
labor and
celebrate
successes.
While I don’t pick up much swag when flying internationally, I do always love stickers, and small things like this bookmark courtesy of Big Duck from their great presentation about inclusive project management.

There are still many things I am processing from NTEN’s 2024 Nonprofit Technology Conference (and all the wonderful, expansive conversations I had before, during, and after). However, writing is a good way to process learning and reflect on things so, here we go…

As I walked into the Oregon Convention Center to pick up my badge, there were signs of the ways in which NTEN is intentional about supporting the community (e.g., local vendors from the craft market) and making sure the conference is inclusive and supports us humans attending as our full selves (e.g., designated spaces for lactation and prayer and racial affinity, a table at lunchtime for those fasting for Ramadan).

Hallway that shows 3 rooms with signs outside of them: prayer and meditation room, lactation room, racial affinity lounge

While I unfortunately missed Sabrina Hersi Issa’s keynote (and am hoping I can watch a recording later), the other two keynotes really shifted the lens for me, even in topics that I thought I knew a little something about.

Though I’ve been mulling for a while on the dominance of English online, in academia, and generally in traveling the world (even though I benefit from it daily), Anasuya Gupta (Whose Knowledge?) somehow managed to elucidate the depth and vastness of this – tracing its roots back to colonization and somehow, lest we feel overwhelmed, also sharing very tactical ways we might go about decolonizing the internet. I am still mulling over her questions:

  • Whose internet?
  • Whose knowledge?
  • Who owns and controls the infrastructure?
  • Whose structures and classifications? (e.g., in structured data)
  • Who and what is invisible?
  • Whom do we learn from, listen to, cite, and speak of?

(See my sketchnotes of Anasuya Gupta’s talk on “The Internets of Liberation”)

Actually, invisibility tied into Amber Case’s keynote as well, which made the case for calm technology – and for invisible technology, which allows you to focus on the task rather than the tool. For example, a window is invisible technology. Mind already blown. How did I not see that before?! (Pun not originally intended but now I feel compelled to leave it in there.) And bananas – their peels change color to indicate when they’re become ripe and when they’re going bad. It made me feel hopeful that we’re not doomed to drown in the proliferation of noxious features and products clamoring for our attention—that feels like the water we are currently swimming in. While I am uncertain if a seal of approval is a strong enough incentive, it was a good reminder that all design is governance, and I will be thinking about how to apply the clear, compelling, and practical principles of calm technology that Case has laid out.

(See my sketchnotes of Amber Case’s talk on “An Introduction to Calm Technology”)

On the theme of what’s visible/invisible and who controls what, The Glass Room had an exhibit about the journeys of the personal data that countless companies extract from us each day. The one about “The Real Life of Your Selfie” particularly stuck out as throughout my trip, I’d been through (at that point) 4 different airports 5 times within 6 days and I’d had my face scanned multiple times by both airlines and government agencies. Do I have the knowledge and privilege to say no? Yes. Did I have the energy resources to refuse after many hours of travel through multiple time zones and after having been jostled repeatedly by passengers who had shown they were capable of navigating around trashcans but not me, an actual human? Not really.

Poster of The Real Life of the Selfie showing and listing examples of the data that can be extracted from the picture of face and the ways in which it can be used

This year, I gave a talk on “Strategic Team Meetings for Teams of One.” True to the laws of technology, I ran into some technology issues at the start of my presentation. However, NTEN being the community that it is, I had three people jump out to help me trouble shoot (in front of a room full of people, no less). People even got up to help close door to the noisy hallway. And that’s not even including the friends and acquaintances who picked me up beforehand, when I expressed my nervousness, and during, when I was trying not to panic that I couldn’t actually show my slides to the audience. (Thank you, Brian, Adrienne, and Alexa for your help to fix that!)

Janice stands, speaking and gesturing with her hands, while standing next to a large screen with a slide about a Meeting with a partner activity. The first row of tables appears empty.
My dad’s initial comment when I sent him this picture per his request: “It looks like you’re speaking to an empty room, Janice.” I promise there were people! I also promise that my dad is actually very supportive of me even though it is very on brand that this would be the first thing he blurts out. (Thanks for the photo, Mark!)

If you missed my session, I also got the opportunity to talk about the topic on the Nonprofit Radio podcast, so stay tuned for when that episode comes out!

There is never enough time to talk with all of the people you want to nor attend all of the interesting sessions—and it wasn’t made easier by having 3 workshops for my coaching training that were overlapping with the conference. (But, oh, were they three transformative sessions!)

Here are some other highlights and things I’ll be continuing to think about (in no particular order):

  • Getting to meet many people in person whom I’d only ever spoken with online before
  • Catching up with old friends and meeting new ones – including someone else form Queens!
  • Mark Root-Wiley’s workshop on “DIY Accessibility Testing” – Every person who is responsible for a website should go through this, truly. It was very easy to do and very eye opening. If you’re attending the Washington State Nonprofit Conference in May, he’ll be presenting that workshop there!
  • Bettina Sferrino, Dani Faulkner, and Tristan Penn’s thoughtfully put together fireside chat on “Things We Wish Our White Colleagues Knew” (I have since shared these notes with a number of people not at the conference but whom I’ve had similar conversations with)
  • The way in which conference attendees challenged each other and made valid points while upholding community values in several specific conversations that could have easily turned into complaining or pre-decided arguments – windows rather than mirrors
  • A great session on proactive accountability and an intriguing session on sociocratic decision making
  • Brianna Collins’s amazing framing of being each other’s professional wingwomen – may each of you have someone like Brianna in your life! (But also, if you need a visual storyteller to help you communicate the change you’re making at your nonprofit, reach out to Brianna!)
  • A session that reminded me that language justice is not only about thinking about access for non-English speakers, but also for Limited English Proficient communities, access for D/deaf and hard of hearing communities, and access for Blind and visually impaired communities
  • The deliciousness I had while in Portland, OR, at Tusk, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, Portland Cà Phê, GrindWitTryz, and Kachka
  • Stumbling across cherry trees in bloom at a riverside park – and someone I knew, making for a lovely walking catchup amidst the beautiful scenery
As seen from above, a park along the river with a winding path lined with blooming cherry trees, a bright blue sky and a bridge in the distance

Permission to feel bad

Cat sleeping face down on a blanket on the sofa. Her front paws are stretched out but folded in, touching her legs, also folded in, as if forming a triangle.
She’s here, okay. What more do you want?!

I used to try to look for the silver lining a lot – or worse, I used to try to get other people to find the silver lining. Now, in and of itself, attempting to find something positive in a bad situation is not a bad thing, nor is it wrong. It can often be helpful as we try to gain perspective, or try to motivate ourselves to keep going when things get tough.

But there are times when it’s hurtful.

There are times when we use the silver lining to ignore the warning signs. To convince ourselves to keep going in unhealthy situations instead of honestly evaluating whether it makes sense to continue on that path (e.g., stay in that job, stay in that relationship, accept being treated poorly) when we have a choice about it. Sometimes staying positive is about survival (particularly when maybe we don’t have a choice, or when the other options are worse). But there are times when it can be a form of giving up.

And it’s also a different thing to choose for yourself than for someone else.

When people are grieving, we want to take away their pain. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to give them permission to feel it. To grieve. To miss that person (or place, or life they imagined, or whatever they have lost). To hurt.

There is so much talk about empathy vs. sympathy and a fraughtness about how we should feel when we haven’t had that experience or cannot ever know what it’s like to be in the other person’s situation, can never understand its full depth. It’s easy to get carried away in one’s own head about the correctly shaped response, and how one could possibly contort oneself into that correct shape. It’s also easy to believe we can approximate someone else’s experience because something (we believe to be) similar happened to us. To fail to recognize how bad a situation truly is for someone, because we (believe we have) survived the same. Or fail to recognize structural and systemic differences. Which can be dismissive, or worse, lead to us potentially gaslighting the other person. I’ve done all of these, and I’m sure I’ll continue before catching myself—though I’m working on it.

Platitudes are about us, about easing our discomfort at not being able to do anything about this terrible situation that the other person is in. But to be a better friend would be to sit with that discomfort if it gives the other person space to grieve. To give them permission to feel bad, to be messy. To free them from feeling guilt about making you uncomfortable on top of whatever they were already feeling awful about.

Someone I respect a lot used to open meetings with a check-in and often led the way herself in what it means to be open and vulnerable, to answer the question of “how are you” honestly even when she was having a really, really tough time. What a gift.

What I’m working on these days is to get better at replying, “that’s really awful” or “that sucks” or in some way recognizing the situation and how someone is feeling. To acknowledge their reality. I’m working at making space for people to feel as they feel. To answer “how are you” as honestly as they wish to. Even when they feel bad. And also, to get better at sharing with the people in my life when I’m having a hard time.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, or struggling, then please reach out to your local lifelines. If you’re in the US, you can call or text 988, or find more resources at 988lifeline.org. If you’re in Japan, you can contact the TELL lifeline via phone at 03-5774-0992 or chat.

What I learned from 50 (mostly) first dates

It’s odd getting to know people as an adult, isn’t it? As a kid, it’s often by proximity – we make friends with the neighbors, kids in our class, or kids who take the same route home after school. As we get older, it’s often through school, perhaps a place of worship or an extracurricular activity, and then at work, or maybe kids’ schools/activities in the case of people who are parents. But what about outside of institutions?

A latte with latte art in the foam on the top to look like two hearts, with a spoon on the saucer, and a tall mug of black coffee to the right. Both cups are on a wooden tray on a wooden table.

Last month, I watched a friend’s six-year-old run around making friends with random children, all readily jumping in to play with each other even though none of the parents knew each other nor necessarily interacted with each other. Nobody had set up a play date. I envied his ease – their ease, I should say, since while he wasn’t shy to jump in, every kid he interacted with was eager to welcome another person to play with. They were simply happy to be playing.

I envied their seeming ease – but actually, in terms of what I saw happen, I’ve found that this generally resonates with what I’ve found as an adult attempting to meet new people.

Earlier this year, I set a goal for myself of having coffee (or lunch or a virtual chat, etc.) with 50 different people. Having moved to a new city (and country) in 2022, I figured that it would be good to get to know people, whether personally or professionally. This was not for romantic purposes (I’m fortunate to have already found a wonderful partner!), nor did I have any specific agenda beyond getting to know people.

As someone craving connection (a.k.a., a human), I also counted people that I already knew, though I tried to make a point to reach out to people I crossed paths with once and wanted to get to know better. So I counted every substantial conversation for the first time I met with that person in 2023, and I counted them whether we met for coffee, shared lunch or a beverage, had an extended conversation during an event, went for a walk in the park, had a virtual meeting. I counted any conversation where I felt like I came away knowing something about the person that I didn’t know before. They included people I met while in the US and while in Japan, and some I’ve only met virtually, but have included people from numerous countries.

Of the 50 conversations, 32 were with people that were new (new as in, we’d never really had a substantial conversation or talked 1:1 before). I’m proud of that. It’s easy to talk to someone for a few minutes at a networking event, connect on LinkedIn, and then never go beyond that. But what’s the point if you’re not even sure why you might want to stay in touch with them besides that they work in the same field? (On top of that, field being fields for me, and even then, pretty loosely defined in my case.) However, I’m also grateful to everyone who made the time and for the things I learned from each of them and along the way.

What did I learn?

  • People are generally pleasantly surprised when you have a great conversation at an event, exchange contact information or connect on LinkedIn, and then actually follow up to schedule a coffee or virtual chat.
  • It works best to reach out for a chat when based on a real connection, when it’s clear that this is not transactional (i.e., not trying to sell something nor use Meetup or LinkedIn as a dating service), and when you reach out within the next few days after meeting them.
  • In a couple cases, I met people through a mutual acquaintance and this can be another strategy for meeting new people. For example, if you’re interested in meeting people who live in a particular area or who say, share a hobby, ask your existing networks!
  • I felt most awkward reaching out to people whom I’ve known casually (in that we crossed paths once or have a mutual acquaintance, etc.) for some time but whom I don’t actually know well. But most of the time, the other person expressed that they had wanted to get to know me better, too, and they were glad I had reached out.
  • Like exercise, reaching out gets easier over time and with practice and remembering that the point is to get to know people – not to have every person you meet like you.
  • There were people I never heard back from. Maybe they didn’t remember meeting me, or maybe it got lost in a cluttered inbox, or who knows what else is going on in their lives – I didn’t take it personally. If I eventually hear back, I look forward to talking with them!
  • You won’t become long-lasting friends or end up working with or hanging out with everyone, and that’s okay. But even if we haven’t really talked much after that initial chat, I’ve still always learned something. I know more about that person and the things that they’re interested in, and hopefully they know something of me—both of which are always wins in my book. The conversations are interesting and sometimes I get to learn other things as well, such as about a field unfamiliar to me, or practical tips for life in Tokyo. (The latter has been especially useful the past year!)
  • Over time, I’ve gotten better at recognizing a genuine connection in the moment (it often involves a lot of laughter in my case) and where we might both enjoy having a more in-depth or 1:1 conversation.
  • There are few things that bond people as quickly as a common and emotionally intense experience. You know, like moving to a country where you don’t really know anyone and can’t really speak/read the language.
  • We are each of us so much more than a job title, or a family role, or our passports, or the things that happened to us. It’s a reminder I’ve really needed for myself this past year.

Someone I once worked with on a project shared with me that, when he worked in sales, he was trained on always having a brochure or something to physically hand a potential customer so that they would have to extend and open their hand to receive it. In doing so, the potential customer would be opening up their body language and, so the theory went, their mind would follow.

I’m not sure if that’s true, but it is human to want to connect with people. Often, people are interested in connecting or talking further, but they may be nervous about reaching out or simply haven’t had the time to follow-up. But that’s not the same as not being open to it.

If you’d like to get to know more people or get to know people better, reach out first. People are more open than you think. There are many kind, gracious, and generous people in the world. Be kind. Be curious. Be real and people will be real with you.

Thoughts? Done something similar? Have other recommendations for meeting people or getting to know people better? I’m open to hearing from you (and to having a chat)!

Collaborating effectively on globally distributed teams

As someone who currently has a majority of her meetings between 5 and 10 a.m. due to time zone differences, and whose partner often starts his evening meetings around my (albeit early) bedtime, I am familiar with the challenges of working across time zones and working with people around the globe.

Long, curving suspension bridge across a body of water, as seen from the pedestrian walkway of that bridge

That being said, years before remote work became a familiar concept (though it existed, it was simply called telework), I’ve worked with people with whom I was not collocated (i.e., we were not working in the same place). I’ve completed projects, sometimes over phone and email only, with people I have yet to meet in person. And let’s be real – many people have had this experience as well. In certain jobs, you’re rarely in the office with your colleagues because you’re constantly on the road. In large companies, you may frequently coordinate with colleagues working in different locations—they’re on site and you’re on site, but you’re not at the same site. My best friend from high school once organized a whole party for me while being out of state and not even actually able to attend! (Thanks, Jess! And Jeremy, for coordinating in-state!)

Here are my top strategies for collaborating effectively (distributed or collocated):

  1. Name your assumptions so you can stop making them. Or at least see if they’re true.
  2. Be intentional and transparent in your communication and planning so as to avoid the confusion of incorrect assumptions (your own and other people’s).

There’s a whole other post that I could write about assumptions and how they trip us up when we are trying to work together. However, for now, I’ll focus on working across time zones and across organizations and across countries. (I’ll admit to not having much experience with working across different global cultures, specifically, since some fields, like scientific research, tend to have a strong culture of their own. And be rather…English language dominant.)

Many of the same things that work well for collaborating effectively across organizational boundaries (companies, departments, disciplines) are also helpful for collaborating effectively across time zones and geographic boundaries. (Well, hopefully someone else is paying attention to any differing regulations, tax requirements, and all that fun stuff.)

In fact, these practices are beneficial for collaborating effectively no matter whom you’re working with and in what context. If there’s a conflict because you expected someone to reply quickly to an email and they didn’t because it wasn’t within their working hours… Then ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you emailed them when it was after hours in their time zone, a holiday in their country (but not yours), a holiday in their religion (but not yours), their day off, or simply because there was no agreed upon response time and they were in the middle of working on a different priority. You can’t be mad at your colleague when you made assumptions (same working hours, same holiday schedule, that your project is more important than the other projects they were working on). Of course, you could just assume that they are ignoring you or not doing their job – but neither of those choices is particularly constructive.

Teams that I’ve been on where there is effective collaboration have the following:

  • A clear vision for what we are all working towards and a clear definition of success
  • Role clarity for everyone within the team and also for external parties (e.g., clients, other teams within the organization) who will interact with the team
  • Explicit (often written) agreements about how we will work together (governance or how decisions get made and who makes them, communications and response times, working and non-working hours, workflows, etc.)
  • Practices and systems that align with and support those agreements, whether it’s a project management tool, processes for information sharing and knowledge management, or the way you structure team meetings
  • Recognition of power dynamics* and structures or practices to mitigate these (e.g., not always favoring one time zone over another for meetings, acknowledging that the working language may not be everyone’s first language and that this takes a cognitive toll, awareness of the general tendency for the US teams to have more power when partnering with non-US teams or the headquarters over satellite offices, etc.)

*Depending on the context of your work and whom you’re working with, there are of course all sorts of other power dynamics to consider, but these are examples specific to working across time zones and across different countries.

Perhaps in the future I’ll get the chance to have more experience with working cross-culturally, since I’m not sure yet how that compares to living or traveling among other cultures. But in the meantime, if you’d like to share what has worked well for you in these situations, I’d be interested to learn from your experiences!

Drawing out stakeholder requirements with workflow diagrams

Have you ever been asked to find a technology solution for *flailing-arms-make-it-better*?!? Or attempted requirements gathering only to get a detailed explanation of how to do a task in the current system?

As anyone who has done requirements gathering can tell you, it’s a bit of an art form. (Yes, pun intended in the title!)

You want to meet the needs of the people who will use the solution, but it can be challenging to understand the needs of people who may not know how to articulate them in ways that translate well to technical specifications. While business process mapping is not an uncommon part of requirements analysis, it can be hard to get started if you’re new to it and hard to know how to get the necessary information.

This session I presented at the 2023 Nonprofit Technology Conference will break down ways to map workflows and get the information you need to write up effective requirements.

Build community to create memorable experiences

Recently, my partner and I went on our first big long vacation since 2019. We went to Italy for two weeks, which was wonderful. Although we did plenty of things on our own, we did sign up for some tours of historic sites, of museums, of a region’s food. Some of the tours were great and some of the tours were…well, they weren’t horrible or anything. They were simply lacking.

What were they lacking?

My partner and I asked each other this, and we both came up with fairly similar answers. The tours and group activities we enjoyed most were the ones where we had the opportunity to build relationships with the other participants – even if only for a couple hours.

Table with a charcuterie board, a dish of olives, a bowl of bread, and a basket of fava beans. No one is sitting at the table yet,
We did a food tour in Florence, and it was not only enjoyable because of the food (sensory touchpoints), or what we learned, or the tour guide, but also because we got to share the experience of trying new food with other people, and we had the chance to share a table and get to know them and hear about their trips as well.

Of course, leave it to a service designer to want to mull on this a little more…

When designing for someone to have a positive experience, you’re often thinking about what the purpose is, what the desired outcome is, what is the person’s job to be done. A big part of this is meeting expectations and understanding what a positive outcome would be for the customer, event attendee, student, whoever is engaging with your product, service, class, tour, whathaveyou. (I get a bit annoyed at the constant talk of delight in the design process. It makes sense if you’re designing something fun, like game or makeup. When I am renewing my driver’s license, what would delight me is to not have to do it at all!)

In service design, a core question is how to create value for everyone involved—the customer and the business to be sure, but also the employees and others involved in or impacted by the service. While it might be focused on the humans using the service and their experience, it’s not sustainable if it burns out your employees nor if it detracts from the organization’s primary goals. (If a person’s goal is to ensure their kids are safe while they go run errands, perhaps that is not great if your organization is say, a museum, and not a childcare provider or otherwise set up to supervise children. And perhaps not great for the kids either.)

Through the framework of service design, we can break a service down into touchpoints (the things a customer is touching, so to speak, whether it’s packaging or an email), interactions between a customer and employee, and all the other layers of what happens (or is needed, infrastructure-wise) behind the scenes that allow us to deliver that service in that way.

Typically, when we think about what will make something a good experience, we think about touchpoints and interactions. Maybe we want our emails to have a friendly tone, or we want to make sure our staff are trained on how to work with disabled customers and provide various accommodations. Maybe we think about the relationships and try to have an assigned account representative for each client or good practices around entering data into a CRM so that any employee can assist any client smoothly with all of their details and history at their fingertips.

But how often, unless our service is explicitly about creating community, do we think about creating community within group experiences? How often do we consider the interactions between our clients, students, participants?

I’ve been a community manager—where my role was specifically to foster community and knowledge exchange among an evolving group of practitioners. (I still do this for fun in my creative pursuits!) But I’ve also used community building in other roles and in shorter terms.

When I was a technical instructor who was training new staff, I always started each training with an icebreaker. I would ask at least one question that was about us as people outside of work, and I usually tried to ask one question that related to the topic. I did this for a few reasons:

  1. Whatever people were doing before they came to the training, meeting, workshop, or other session you’re facilitating, it’s helpful to give people a way to shift their brains into what you’re about to do next.
  2. Most of the training I led was required onboarding, and it was all on using databases, which is a bit of a dry topic to dive directly into for many people. When it’s a topic that sometimes people dread, or that they’re a little worried will be difficult, it’s helpful to ground people in their existing knowledge. For example, during trainings on using the database to manage event attendees, I would ask people to share about an event they enjoyed and what made it a positive experience.
  3. Everyone in my trainings had recently joined the organization. I wanted to provide a low-stakes opportunity for them to practice introducing themselves with their new role and to get to know other new employees across the organization (a rare opportunity in most large organizations, as this was).
  4. I wanted to model what kind of space this was: a space where they could be seen as more than their job title, where they were invited to participate and use their voice from the start, and a space that, in its playfulness, hopefully felt more like a sandbox and less like a classroom.

Certainly, everyone was there to check the box as something they needed to perform their jobs. But I’d like to believe my efforts also helped reduce any anxiety (a thing in data/technology training) so that they could learn, helped new employees feel a little more seen and connected within such a vast organization, and made it easier for people to reach out to me for help in the future (many did). And that’s valuable to the training participants, it’s valuable to the organization, and it was valuable to me, as an instructional designer – to know what other learning needs there were after the training.

At the time, I didn’t think of it as building community. I thought of it as holding and shaping a space, for that time when we were all together, and creating an atmosphere within that space where we would all be primed for what we were about to do together—so that we may get the most value out of it.

The ability to connect as humans with everyone experiencing the same thing I am in the moment always make things a little brighter, and a little deeper. Growing up in NYC, sometimes we would have blackouts in the summer. And the neighbors emerge from their homes, and we’d sit outside together and talk, creating our own light in the dark.

Build community, even if it’s ephemeral.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s for an hour-long workshop, or a three-hour tour, or if the people will ever see each other again. Sure, having one instructor train 20 new employees is more efficient than training everyone 1:1. But it’s not the only reason to do it.

I’d like to call out that, first of all, it’s far less awkward. Isn’t a little silly to act as if everyone is in their own little bubble and can’t see or hear the other participants? Rather than leaving people to navigate the ambiguous social situation by themselves, we could (as facilitators, hosts, tour guides, et al.) create a starting point for intentional connection.

More importantly, creating opportunities for human creation is another way to add value to the experience. It is human to crave connection. If you’ve ever experienced something and suddenly wished that a specific person was there to share it with you – you know that an experience is different when you’ve shared it with someone. The same way that adding a dash of salt deepens the taste of caramel or that sprinkling in some red pepper flakes near the end of cooking intensifies the other flavors in a dish, that connection makes an experience feel fuller, as if you yourself, in opening up to others, have more fully opened up to that experience.

While you may not build a community that outlasts the event, human connections are the foundation. So why is this post about community rather than about connections? Simply trying to connect people to each other ends up being some sort of transactional speed-dating situation that leaves everyone unsatisfied. But if you think about it in terms of building community, and leave it open to each member to contribute what they will, you create something much better together.

A few things I’ve learned about creating accessible slides

Apologies if you came here expecting that I was a playground designer, although there are people who make accessible play areas!

View seated for a conference talk in a room set up with tables and chairs and printed materials on the tables. At the front of the room is a glowing projector screen with a blank screen. No one else appears to be in the room.
Are you typically creating slides that you’ll present online? In person? (This photo was taken before someone else’s presentation at a conference several years ago.)

There is no perfect way to make things 100% accessible to everyone because people are different. I state that upfront as a reminder to myself as much as to anyone else that this work is not perfect, that it is messy, and that none of this should stop us from working to make things more accessible to more people right now.* I do not and I am not going to get everything right. I’m sure I’ve failed on a lot of these points in previous slide decks and I will continue to make mistakes. None of these tips are foolproof, and this list is not exhaustive. Perhaps you’ll read it and say you knew all these things already—and that you have some things to teach me! (Which would be great! Please do.) But, hey, maybe some of this will be new to some people. So, I will continue on with my imperfect notes on how I’ve been trying to make my slides more accessible.

Some of these things I learned from the speaker guide for NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, some from a class in graduate school on making information accessible (taught by the awesome Dr. Renee Hill!), some from independent learning about accessibility, and some things by trial and error.

The context of this post is creating slides that I’m preparing to present, such as for a conference talk, as opposed to other purposes. Although I may sometimes mention things related to presenting, the focus will be on the slides themselves. I most often use PowerPoint, so I mention some specific things in the version of the program I have, so if you have a more recent version or use something else for creating slides, those functions might be called something else or work a little differently.

Here are some things I’ve been learning and working at incorporating in my slides:

  • Always check the template (and any other colored elements you are choosing) to ensure you have sufficient color contrast. Unfortunately, those default templates are not necessarily accessible – even when they are labeled as such. You’ll want to check things like the color contrast for people who are colorblind or have low vision. If you like to create your own templates, start with a color palette that has sufficient contrast. Of note, color contrast is not only about the colors, but sometimes about the size and font weight. Black text on a white background will work at any legible size, but certain color combinations that are readable at font size 40 will not be readable by everyone at a font size 20. While it’s not perfect, if your combination doesn’t work if printed in grayscale, you should probably adjust the color palette.
  • Make sure every slide has a title. Occasionally, I will not use the template title area, or because I am not using a template, it is unclear which text is the title of the slide. While it might be obvious to a sighted person, it’s important to make sure someone using a screen reader would be able to use titles to help navigate through the slides. In PowerPoint, if you turn on “Check accessibility,” an Accessibility tab will be added to the ribbon at the top. You use the button for setting the slide title to set a specific text box to be the slide title.
  • Include an agenda and let people know what point in the presentation they’re at. This is more of a presentation tip, but it’s helpful to orient people to what’s going to be covered and to give people a sense of where they are in the agenda. This can be especially helpful for people with cognitive or learning disabilities, but it’s helpful to everyone. I usually include a slide with a numbered list of the topics or sections, and then each section starts with a section header slide that references the section number and where we are in the presentation. (If it’s hard for me to break it out this way, then it probably means the presentation needs some further organization.)
Slide that shows the section header: "1 / 5 What is service design?" followed by some footer information with the name of the presentation and the presenter
In this example of a section header slide, the title of the section, “What is service design?” follows “1 / 5” to indicate that this is the first of five sections in the presentation.
  • Use a font size of at least 18, but preferably larger! Using a larger font size also prevents you from putting too much text per slide, as slide are intended to be presented. If you truly need to write that much, you are writing a report! Or at least an article or blog post. They’re fine formats, but they are formats that meant to be read at your own pace instead of at the speed at which someone is giving a presentation.
  • IF YOU WRITE IN ALL CAPITALIZED LETTERS FOR VERY LONG PORTIONS OF TEXT, THIS IS VERY DIFFICULT FOR EVERYONE TO READ. That took you an extra moment to read and comprehend, didn’t it?
  • Leave the bottom 20% of the slide blank so that captions won’t cover up any content. Occasionally you might be presenting within a platform where the captions are not on top of the slides, but if you’re not sure, the bottom is often where captions are placed on a screen. (Unsure if there will be captions? Ask! It doesn’t matter whether you personally need them. Other speakers and attendees might, and they shouldn’t have to ask.)
  • Include alternative text for images, videos, diagrams, and other visual elements that are relevant. Avoid text in images; simply use the text. (This is inaccessible both to people using screen readers and to people using translation software or other text-based tools.) For videos, you’ll need to consider both captions and video descriptions (a description of what is happening visually) so that the content is accessible to audience members who are blind or D/deaf. You can mark decorative images as decorative and skip the alt text, although it’s worth asking the question of what those images are adding to your presentation.
  • Plan to describe the images verbally if they’re relevant. Okay this isn’t about the slides, but during the presentation, make sure you verbally describe the visual elements that you created alternative text for. Or if you are demonstrating something live, then describe what you’re doing – like if you were on a cooking show.
    • Speaker descriptions: Some people say the speakers should describe themselves, and others say this isn’t really useful information. Within the blind community, there are a lot of differing opinions on speaker descriptions. Unless I’m asked to describe myself visually, I tend to use the guideline of whether it is relevant. If the topic is related to career development, then the fact that I am an Asian American woman in my mid-30s is relevant. If I am talking about working remotely, then it makes sense to reference my surroundings. If I am showing people how to create diagrams, then a description of my visual appearance and what sighted people can see in my background feels performative rather than adding anything to an understanding of the topic.
  • Review the order of object order on your slides. If someone is using a device like a screen reader, you’ll want them to go through everything on your slides in the correct order. An easy way to test this is to use the Tab key to tab through each object (title, text box, image, etc.) on each slide. You can usually right click to move an object forward or backward. (Reading order starts in the back and moves forward to end in the front.)

My process for creating slides

Sometimes it’s difficult to take a collection of tips and figure out how to apply them in practice. My process for creating slides and presentations may be different from yours, but here’s a rough summary of my current process:

  1. Draft learning objectives, usually as a document.
  2. Use the learning objectives to draft an outline, usually in the same document.
  3. Start a new slide file and pick a template.
  4. Check that the template color contrast is sufficient. (Turn on accessibility checker to help me with this if it’s available.)
  5. Edit the template if needed.
  6. Start building out the content in the slides – usually putting the bullet points from the outline as the temporary slide titles.
  7. Work on developing the text and the speaking points in whatever order I can get it to come out in. Usually I put in placeholders for visuals that I need, but also sometimes information that I need to go find. I typically turn off or ignore the accessibility checker during this part.
  8. Lots of iterating, editing, filling in those placeholders, refining speaking points.
  9. Once the visual elements are finalized, I write alternative text. (I usually turn the accessibility back on at this point because it helps me tick off images that need alt text.)
  10. If I forgot to describe something in the speaking points, then I incorporate the description of visuals.
  11. Review and address any other accessibility issues that come up – with the exception of slide order, which I leave until last in case I need to make other changes.
  12. Go through the presentation as a whole, both the slides and practicing the speaking, to make sure everything works together as a whole (and within the allotted time).
  13. Check the slide order by tabbing through each object on each slide and adjusting the object order as needed.
  14. If there’s a method for making the slides available to attendees ahead of the presentation (so they can review as needed, at their own pace, using the appropriate tools, ahead of time), then I do that.

What else? I’m open to learning how to do things better! Email me and let me know if you learned anything new from this post, have suggestions, or what your process looks like for creating slides.

*While there’s no such thing as perfect accessibility, there is indeed possibility to do things that make the situation worse. For example, using an accessibility overlay on your website often makes a website less accessible than say, if you had forgotten to put alt text for images. (Okay, that’s not great, but at least it doesn’t break the other parts of your website.) Better to keep things simple, and to keep working at making your website more accessible.

Managing change when making big changes

Author’s Note: Is this change something new that you are in the process of planning? You may want to read “How to plan to do something you’ve never done before” before this one if you haven’t already.

Someone holds a phone with a compass app open while standing near a compass embedded in the sidewalk. Per the sidewalk compass, the person should be facing north, but the smartphone compass app says that this direction is 32 degrees north east.
In case you can’t tell from the photo, the compass on the sidewalk says we are facing north, but my friend’s smartphone compass app says that we’re actually pointing towards 32 degrees north east!

If you’ve ever managed a project with a long timeframe or been responsible for implementing a major change, then you know that, well, things change.  Inevitably, you’ll discover something that hadn’t been accounted for or that wasn’t as clear at the beginning, or perhaps, something in your context will have changed.  Maybe there’s a new opportunity you’ll want to be able to seize. 

You may have even identified some potential risks and come up with plans to mitigate them.  It is, however, impossible to know everything that could possibly happen or change or that needs to be accounted for when you’re initially planning a project.  One of the best ways to plan for the unexpected is to plan for change, to build in a margin for it.  That’s why it’s helpful to save for an emergency fund, and why you build extra time and contingency into a project budget.

You can also plan to make changes, even if you don’t know what the changes will be.  Worse comes to worse, your plan works out. 

Many people plan regular times to check in and evaluate progress on a project, especially a change management project, but even better is to regularly ask the question of what changes need to be made and evaluate the plan itself.

Plan to change your plan

Here’s how to prepare for course adjustments before you start really diving in:

  • Schedule check-in meetings and put them on the calendar along with an agenda.  How many and how often depends on the scope of what you’re doing and the timeframe.  Perhaps you might split it into thirds or around key milestones or phases.  If this is more of a continuous thing than a discrete project, then figure out a timeframe when enough will have happened to answer some key questions, but not so much time that it will be hard to change course.
  • Determine how it will be decided whether to adjust course and how.  This could be by consensus, by the project lead having final say, or some type of measure (e.g., as long as our revenue is on track within 5%, we stick to the plan)—or some combination.
  • When planning out the work, plan the first third in the most detail, the second third with some detail, and leave the last third at a high-level.  This will make it easier to make changes since you’ll have left some planning (e.g., who is doing what specific tasks during which week or month) until after the check-in point.

If this is a change management project (e.g., implementing a new system and new processes), having scheduled check-ins to review and adjust the plan can also support your cause.  One thing people worry about during a big change is that it will be terrible, it will make things worse, and they will be stuck with it.  (That can happen, of course!)  However, transparency about how changes will be made and opportunities to provide feedback or request adjustments (e.g., including some time to work out the new time tracking process before the summer staff join) can alleviate some concerns.  You can engage them as beta testers and partners in working out any issues before the full rollout.

Considerations for course adjustments

Here’s are some things you might want to discuss at the start of the project and then during check-ins:

  • What is the desired outcome at the end of this scope of work/part of the project?
  • What assumptions was this planned work based upon?  Have things changed?  You will likely need to change your plan if an assumption no longer holds.  If it was a constraint, then maybe you don’t need to change anything but this opens up other opportunities.  Note:Assuming that the plan will lead towards the desired outcome is an assumption.
  • Does it look like we’re making progress towards the desired outcome?  This is really about whether it is working for the team/organization or not.
  • What changes do we need to make to our plan?  This can be adding things, subtracting things, or modifying how you go about them (e.g., method, strategy, timing, who does what).
  • Do we need to change how we evaluate the need for course adjustments at our next check-in?

When the only constant is change, might as well plan for it!

How to plan to do something you’ve never done before

There are things that someone can show us how to do, like how to tie our shoelaces or how to fry an egg. Then there are the things you can really only learn by doing: riding a bicycle, managing people. However, it’s always helpful to have some frameworks for how to approach the new thing as you’re learning while you’re doing it.

Every time I have to do something new that is big enough in scale to warrant a plan (or feels overwhelming enough that I want to make a plan), I start with what I call the “What’s Needed Exercise.”

Notebook page titled, "What's needed?" with a bulleted list that reads: Tasks; Decisions; Information; People; Supplies, equipment, venues, etc.; Time, budget, commitments

This exercise is very simple: I ask myself what is needed to make this thing happen and don’t stop writing (or typing) until I run out of ideas of things that might be needed. Then I organize them.

Regardless of what the new thing is – a volunteer training, version 2 of a custom grants management system, moving to a new country – there are typically a few categories of things that are needed.

Here are some prompts for thinking through what’s needed:

  • What are the steps or tasks to do the big new thing?
  • What decisions need to be made? By whom?
  • What information* is needed? How do we get this information (ask someone, conduct design research, analyze the website data)?
  • Which people are needed and for what? (This could be people on a MOCHA or DARCI chart, or this could be people to do X thing, or it could be that you need an expert in alligator wrestling.)
  • What supplies, tools, equipment, systems, or venues are needed?
  • What time or budget or commitments are needed?

*If you can’t articulate what success looks like and how you’ll be able to tell that you’ve made it to your destination, then you’ll want to add to the list of information that is needed (or decisions to be made).

I don’t try to answer those questions in order, though you can if it’s helpful. Typically, I’ll make my massive list (in a document or a spreadsheet or as sticky notes on a board) and then organize them.

Here are some groups I find useful:

  • To do
  • To decide
  • To find out
  • To get

Once they’re organized a little bit, it will be easier to see the dependencies. Then you can begin to sequence them.

And there’s your game plan! Well, okay, you probably have a specific timeframe for getting this thing done, or you might be working on this with other people, and so you’ll need to work on the timeline and how you and the others will work together. But this can get you started on estimating the level of effort, how much time you’ll need to allocate, and when it can fit on the calendar, how many people (and which ones) you need to get to help you, and so on. Here’s a way you can start when you’re not sure where to start!

What approaches or tactics have worked well for you when planning to do something new? I’d be interested to hear what works well for you or how it goes if you try this out. Of course, it’s common, when you do something for the first time, that things don’t always go according to plan and you find yourself having to make some course adjustments along the way. Stay tuned for a post on how to plan to change the plan…